June 9, 2005
News & Opinion: BOOK REVIEW: What Is Your Life's Work (#5)
Bill Jensen's new book, What Is Your Life's Work, was intitially a bit of a mixed bag for me. I should note that I've been a big fan of Bill's work for some time now. Bill was kind enough to send a preview pdf file of the book to me several months ago, and I really liked the content. Once I began reading the actual book, though, I began to have some doubts about whether I'd find much value in it.
There's no way around it, this is an unusual book. Jensen spent several years compiling personal letters from people. Some were letters written specifically to loved ones, others were "work diaries" in which the writers reflected upon the bigger questions of the meaning of work. Jensen notes early on that in reading through thousands of these letters and diaries, he began to note some common themes, which he calls "Discoveries." Thus, the book is organized by these five themes: Finding Yourself; Finding the Lessons to Be Learned and the Questions to Be Asked; Finding the Choices that Really Matter; Finding the Courage to Choose; Finding Joy, Serenity and Fulfillment. Each chapter contains letters or diary entries that exemplify that chapter's theme, but which also may contain elements of the other themes. The final part of the book contains a "Field Guide" to writing your own letters--Jensen even asks readers to submit their letters for possible inclusion in the paperback version of the book. Additionally, the back of the book contains author acknowledgements and some interesting statistics derived from Jensen's ongoing research into how work gets done.
The beginning of the book gives some pretty specific instructions for use, which include selective reading, thinking about themes and writing your own letter. Straightforward enough, but I was a little skeptical about whether there would be any letter so compelling that I'd actually draw deep meaning from it, let alone be so inspired as to write my own letter. Jensen notes early in the book that readers ought to expect to find between three to five letters that really resonate with them, challenge them or inspire them. Additionally, he notes that readers ought not be surprised if all of "their" letters are grouped around a particular theme. Then again, he notes, they may be more scattered.
I admit it. I didn't follow the instructions. I first read the instructions, then read the index that details which letters cover which areas of life. But then I went ahead and read the whole book, cover to cover. I did note those letters which resonated with me--I was surprised to find some! As Jensen promises, there really are letters for all sorts of folks and, despite the diversity (there was even one letter that I couldn't find anything to agree with at all), all the letters are well written. The letters that I found most helpful tended to be grouped in the second (lessons to be learned, questions to be asked), fourth (courage to choose) and fifth (joy, serenity and fulfillment) themes, though the three letters that I loved most were grouped in the fifth theme.
Now that I've read the book, I'm in a decidedly different place than I was when I began. I love this book, and I'll be passing on copies to friends. Some of the letters were trite or full of the same old truisms we've all heard a thousand times before. But the letters that really struck me most seemed to have been pulled from my own experience. Here are a few pulled quotes from some of the letters that I found most helpful...
It was where we learned how soul-satisfying it can be to help someone else grow and succeed. ...to go home knowing that you have used yourself well.
--Barbara Simonetti, writing to her friend on p. 81
Believe that exhibiting character and discipline yields more benefits than costs, even when the costs are all that you can see in the short term and the long term seems a bit far off.
--Michael Civitelli and Janet Scarborough, writing to their son on p. 83
While one's moral fiber must always stay intact, flexibility in marriage, careers, friendships, and adversity is a necessity.
--Dave Woods, writing to his children on p. 88
Be a rebel, a respectful rebel, but a rebel nonetheless.
--Rick Ritacco, writing to his children on p. 96
Consider the actual tasks involved in the work you would do every day. And follow those tasks into different fields. Which means never getting fixated on making one right career decision.
--Joan Malin, writing to the teens that Planned Parenthood serves in NYC on p. 116
In essence, I learned that the best commercial strategy for my tomorrows is to be present at all times today.
--Peter Tunjic, in his resignation letter to the parters of his law firm on p. 155
...work is...about searching for your place in the world and cooperating with the many gifts that the Divine has bestowed upon you.
--Kenny Moore, writing to his sons on p. 179
You should enjoy what you do while helping others enjoy their work as well.
--Travis Thomas in his work diary on p. 189
There were plenty of others, including a couple of letters in their entirety that spoke to me (Kenny Moore's, quoted above, and Kip Winsett's on p. 194). Additionally, the letter from Kristi Dinsmore, on page 182, is hilarious--she uses a breakfast buffet as an extended metaphor for how to work well...complete with many bacon references.
As soon as I finish writing this review, I'll be starting the exercises listed at the back of the book. The toughest part will be writing letters that are honest to the bone. But that's what I'll be doing. I'm learning that the book isn't just about work--it's about Life and What's Important. Those are the things I'll be writing in my letters. My goal is to have a letter written for all the most important people in my life, which I'll give them for Christmas '05 (inspired by yet another letter in the book).
You can tell by now that I enjoyed reading the book, and am continuing to reap it's benefits. My guess is that this would be an enjoyable read for just about anyone, but it'll be a challenging read for those people who commit to following the message of the book to the logical conclusion. The challenge is to dig deep and ask oneself the questions that often have answers that are really difficult to hear. And then telling the answers to others. Without the effort required to go these extra steps, the book is still an enjoyable read, but about as challenging as Chicken Soup for the Soul.
Brendon Connelly is a university adminstrator who blogs at http://slackermanager.com.
About Dylan Schleicher
Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.